Women Support Women: An Exhibition for the Women’s and Girls’ Emergency Centre

Women Support Women: Feminism and Social Movements in Sydney (1970s-1980s), screenshot from the digital version of the exhibition

During these past few months of uncertainty, WAGEC and I have collaborated to create an exhibition reflecting on the organisation’s roots in second-wave feminism. The establishment of the centre is rooted in the Women’s Liberation Movement, brought by our American sisters to Australia. Sydney’s inner-city quickly became a hub of activism, where students, Indigenous communities, and women would gather to share their experiences and hopes for the future. 

Women Support Women: Feminism and Social Movements in Sydney (1970s-1980s) is a two-fold project. The first part is a collection of photographs, posters, brochures, and archives from WAGEC and the city of Sydney, shedding light on the grassroots historical background leading to the creation of the centre. The second part of the project is a historical recollection of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the NSW Women’s Refuge Movement, the impact of the Whitlam administration, and the suburbs of activism such as Glebe and Redfern. 

Feminist since my childhood, my grandmother has always been a source of inspiration to pursue my interest in feminism throughout my university degree. Our discussions around the feminist movement in Paris have always fascinated me. As a young gynaecologist, Elizabeth Sot protested for birth control and helped women with illegal abortions, before the Veil laws in 1975. Despite her religious faith, my grandmother believed that women were entitled to control their bodies. Along with my research for this project, she has stayed in my heart.  

My conversation with WAGEC started in late August. The project was decided as a historical steppingstone for WAGEC’s new offices. In an earlier discussion, WAGEC expressed the desire to have a visual project showing its history amid the period of activism in Sydney. My first thought was to create history panels as we can find in parks, or at the front of heritage buildings. However, after discussing with my supervisors, I realised that history panels would not be appropriate for the workplace environment. 

Inspired by the exhibition Know My Name: Australian Women Artists: 1900 to Now, the visual project Women Support Women was born. The exhibition will be displayed at the entrance of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land building, where WAGEC recently moved to. Women Support Women can be understood as an illustrated timeline, retracing two decades of social change and women’s activism in Sydney. Further, the historical analysis places WAGEC in a wider context, showing how its creation brings many histories and movements together. WAGEC appears to be at a crossover between Radical Sydney and the values upheld by Women’s Liberation. The project aims to emphasise how the organisation, despite its growth, remains grassroots and feminist in essence. WAGEC emerged in 1977, a few years after the establishment of the first women’s refuge, Elsie’s Refuge. A lot has changed since then: government supports and provides funding for accommodations; the conversation is opening on domestic violence and, feminists continue the struggle towards equality. Yet, a lot remains to be done. Nonetheless, Women Support Women is a tribute to Jeanne Devine’s work and the historical background that brought WAGEC together, making it the incredible organisation it is today.  

You can find out more about supporting WAGEC on their website.

WAGEC also holds a volunteering program to support women and children, you can find out more here

Women support Women: A History Project with the Women’s and Girl’s Emergency Centre

WAGEC protesting on International Women’s Day in 1993

Since the 1970s, women have been at the forefront of supporting other women, in particular in cases of domestic violence. In 1974, the NSW Women’s Refuge Organisation was founded with the establishment of Elsie’s Refuge in Glebe, NSW – the first women’s refuge in Sydney. 

WAGEC’s Logo

The Women’s and Girl’s Emergency Centre (also called WAGEC) inherited the aspiration for social change from the Women’s Liberation Movement in Sydney. Anchored in the atmosphere of violence and homelessness, WAGEC was founded by Jeanne Devine, a woman who experienced homelessness firsthand after an accident that left her in the hospital for a year. Jeanne joined the Samaritan House, one of the few shelters, like Elsie’s refuge, that had been growing around Sydney since the 1970s. From this moment, Jeanne started talking to other women and realised that most were escaping domestic violence. Noticing this pattern, Jeanne founded WAGEC 44 years ago to ensure both the material and psychological support of women and children who suffered the consequences of violence and trauma at home. 

Although WAGEC has grown over the years, the non-for-profit remains grassroot and feminist in essence. WAGEC supports women and children impacted by domestic violence while advocating for social change in the community. The organisation ensures the material support by providing families with crisis and transitional accommodations. Simultaneously, they facilitate women and children’s psychological care through three holistic programs. SEED identifies the Social, Emotional, Educational and Development of children and includes activities such as tutoring and playgroups. ACCESS is a program focusing on women’s wellbeing helping them with economic safety, health and self-esteem. Finally, WAGEC provides in-house counselling in each of its crisis and transitional accommodation to ensure a continuing support of women.   

As I researched organisations focusing on women and domestic violence, WAGEC appeared to be a local, grassroot, feminist non-for-profit prioritising women as the primary source of truth. As a feminist since my youngest age, my source of inspiration has always been my grandmother, who, as a young gynaecologist, was at the forefront of Second Wave Feminism in France, helping women with illegal abortions and protesting for birth control. Reading about WAGEC made me want to be part of their history, participating in showcasing their feminist roots to the community. Hence, the history project that I am undertaking with WAGEC is two-folded. On the one hand, I will be creating a small exhibition, inspired by the exhibition Know My Name: Australia Women Artists from 1900 to Now currently showing at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. The other part of the project is a written one. I will be transcribing some of the research I have done for the exhibition, analysing how WAGEC stemmed from the feminist movement in the 1970s. 

WAGEC is currently based in Redfern, NSW. You can support WAGEC via https://www.wagec.org.au